S02E13 – “The Trouble with Tribbles”
The Enterprise is summoned on emergency channels to Space Station K-7 to protect stores of grain. While there, the crew encounters Klingons and an infestation of maximum cuteness. Which poses the bigger threat?
Once more, Uhura proves to be a woman after my own heart: singer, lyre player, and lover of adorable, furry animals. Ah, what can be said of one of the most beloved episodes in the entirety of Star Trek‘s history? Quite a bit, as it turns out, but suffice to say writer David Gerrold proved his genius in plotting, characterization, and humor. The script is simple and elegant, in turn masterfully hammed up by the entire cast. Bravo. Special kudos to actor William Campbell, returning to Trek as a Klingon after his season one turn as “The Squire of Gothos” and especially to the props department for creating that impressive amount of tribbles. If you look carefully during the storage bin sequence, you can see the shadows of the people inside throwing out more Tribbles onto Kirk. As many times as I’ve enjoyed this one, I can’t help but notice such things. It ranks right up there for me with seeing the stunt performers during fight sequences. It’s the grin of nostalgia, I assure you.
The tribbles, of course, will return in The Animated Series (we’ll get there). And I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that in the wake of the film Forrest Gump, the idea of inserting people into classic film footage became a thing, and almost nobody did it well… but Star Trek did. Deep Space Nine got in on the action in the rather incredible “Trials and Tribble-ations.”
S02E14 – “Bread and Circuses”
The Enterprise encounters a world similar to Earth, where society resembles what the 20th century might have looked like had the Roman Empire not fallen.
“Are you not entertained?!” As hokey as the idea is that you have to go to deep space to find a parallel Earth, sometimes the stories themselves make the setup worth it. This is one of those times. Fantastic episode, with the exception that they keep calling out colloquial English early on without explaining how the obvious Latin fell by the wayside. And we won’t even call out the fashion choices. It’s enough to make the point to television audiences, though, so it’s hard to be picky when there’s so much in this episode to discuss. There are always holes like this beyond the scope of a single episode to explain, and ultimately it doesn’t matter to the higher points. Once again, McCoy calls out Spock’s potentially Satanic appearance in the name of fun, but the Christian undertones to this episode aren’t nearly as shoehorned in or as tacked on as some may think. It’s rather an important point to what this episode is saying to the audience. Christians are once more the persecuted victims in this story, and yet… they’ll seemingly never understand how they’ve since become the persecutors in modern society, and how they continue to miss the point of exactly what this episode calls out, that theirs is supposed to be “a philosophy of total love and total brotherhood.” Notice how Uhura can have such reverence for the idea, and yet no one the Enterprise is a devotee of any particular faith… because the running meme in Star Trek is that humans outgrew religion, partly as a sign of species intelligence and maturity, and partly because it was the sort of thing that kept humanity divided and held back from its higher potential. Religion has led to more bloodshed and hostility than any other force in this planet’s history. Any one who claims God doesn’t require a sacrifice should mark well the atrocities committed in the name of the Almighty. And I’m not just picking on the Christians here. It’s a global pandemic across all time and cultures. It’s just that Christianity is on display here as one of the major forces of the last 2000 years of development. You can’t talk Rome without it. Here’s a question no one else seems to ask, but this episode does without asking it directly: how might Rome’s development have been different if Christianity had not been accepted and enforced? Here, the pagan deities are enforced, not for their own sake, but for the might of the empire and its political structure… just as Christianity has been since Rome accepted it in our own history. In terms of armchair history, I find Spock’s arguments of how a society of class segregation and slavery that managed to avoid the carnage of two world wars to be objectively captivating (no pun intended). I’m not capable of qualifying which side of that argument is the “better” one, just as he couldn’t, but as a thought experiment, it’s rather intensive. After all, without Christianity, there is potentially no break in the Roman Empire, no potential weakness against the barbarian hoards, no Dark Ages, and no Renaissance. There is also no war between nations if everything’s under one empire. It’s academic, of course, because even the greatest empires crumble, but that’s where the thought experiment this sets up becomes truly magnificent. After all, Christianity has been warring with itself since the beginning, and it really is only one more excuse humans need to fight each other. We’re pretty good about preying on differences in the name of tribalism and perceptions of strength and weakness. Any excuse that rears itself, humanity exploits it quite admirably. Such possibilities to consider! Something else this episode showcases along Christian lines is the general willful ignorance of science, early in the episode, when Kirk tries to explain other worlds around other stars. More closely tied into to Trek‘s ideals, this one showcases the Prime Directive and the ramifications of how Captain Merrick broke it to secure his own survival and political position. So many interesting points of story, and only 50 minutes of screen time to address them all. Seems a shame. But then, this is why I sometimes think Trek works better in literature than on screen. I know, that seems blasphemous to me too, to say it so bluntly like that, but there it is. And yes, I get the irony of that being the blasphemous part. God loves a heretic. Prove me wrong.
The very idea that you can overlay Ancient Rome on the mid 20th century speaks highly to the idea of how, as Mark Twain put it, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.” At this point in history, the United States had helped to throw off fascism a generation before, and the spread of Communism was the big boogeyman in the world to be feared. A reminder of how the US was founded on the ideals of the Roman Republic should have been a good warning of corruption from the inside and where such political opportunism could lead. This was probably not a consideration when the episode was written, but as is the case with all of the best stories through time, fiction has a way of holding up a mirror to what’s in the mind of a contemporary audience in any generation. It’s one of the reasons Star Trek endures, such warnings, combined with the assurances that everything will turn out better in the end, no matter how bad it gets in the short term. Adaptation in the name of survival is not the same as striving towards a higher ideal. That’s some serious food for thought. After all, we still remember the name of Spartacus for a reason.
On a personal level, McCoy makes a statement about how Spock isn’t afraid to die because he’s more afraid of living. Each day is one more chance to slip and let the human half peek out. For someone like myself, who hides in plain sight to avoid persecution, Spock’s internal struggle combined with the previously-outlined struggle of survival vs. the higher ideal means that the subtext of this episode practically screams in my soul. That, too, is how the best fiction works, by providing representational parallels to speak to individual causes and needs that even the writer may be unaware. Art can be powerful for exactly those reasons. I could write an entire Ph.D. level dissertation on everything this episode brings to bear.
S02E15 – “Journey to Babel”
The Enterprise is host to ambassadors from across the Federation en route to diplomatic accords. Among the delegates are Ambassador Sarek of Vulcan and his wife Amanda: Spock’s parents.
Speaking of Spock’s internal struggle… there’s nothing quite like a visit from the parental units to really make a person truly uncomfortable. Leave it to master Trek scribe D. C. Fontana to bring out the very best in a story surrounding Spock and his background. I’ve previously called out character actor Mark Lenard in all due praise for his enduring legacy in Star Trek. His roles as a Romulan or a Klingon pale in comparison to his recurring gravitas as Sarek. In concert with Jane Wyatt’s equally memorable performance as Amanda, to say nothing of Nimoy’s ever-remarkable portrayal, we get to know Spock here in a way we never really get to know any other of the Enterprise‘s crew. It makes things personal, intimate even, and somehow not invasive. Spock might disagree. It’s through more than McCoy’s traded barbs with our favorite science officer that we get inside his defenses, but even these reveal so much. “On Vulcan, the teddy bears are alive, and they have six inch fangs.” *mic drop* We’ll see one of those in The Animated Series, in an episode also penned by Fontana.
It’s more than just an insight into Spock that we get in this episode. Look closely at this particular screen shot. A Vulcan, a human, an Andorian, and a couple of Tellarites. In Star Trek, these are the founding races of the United Federation of Planets. Their obvious differences and potential cultural clashes were always of primary interest to me once I started digging into Trek lore. They symbolize our own differences here on Earth on a number of levels: cultural, racial, religious, political… the list goes on. To look at them, it seems impossible that such disparate cultures could come together in the name of peace and stay together for that larger goal. This is why I was so excited when Enterprise was airing, why I admire the Enterprise novels that came about in the wake of the series’ cancellation, and why I’m all-in on Discovery now, both on TV and in print. Prequels offer the opportunity to see how these idea come to pass. None of that would be possible if not for the foundation provided by this episode. Indeed, Trek history would be very different on a number of levels if not for what Fontana brought forth in this storyline. It’s a truly impressive amount of world building in such a small amount of screen time. But it still comes down to a single point: peace can be achieved, if we’re willing to work for it. The mark of the writing here is that the exact same message applies not only at the political level, but on the interpersonal level as well, between family members, related and not related alike.
Having said all that, how does a starship fire “photon torpedoes two, four, and six” when there are only two torpedo tubes? Somebody get Scotty on this. lol
S02E16 – “A Private Little War”
Kirk returns to a once peaceful world he helped survey thirteen years ago to find the natives using flintlocks in open hostility with one another. With Spock fighting for his life in sick bay and the Enterprise hidden from the Klingons, Kirk and McCoy must avoid further cultural contamination while preventing all-out war.
Why is it the beautiful, dark-haired temptress is always the powerful witch type? Oh, right… it’s because that archetype is woefully misunderstood and still no less an archetype. Not that I know anything at all about such matters. Still, powerful though she may be in her own right, she is also right about the potential of a phaser to protect against hostile rivals and tip the balance of power. She’s less a serpent in their Garden of Eden than she is a pragmatic result of the problems in play. The real serpents are the Klingons, who are advancing the rival villagers’ weapons technology at an accelerated rate, and as Kirk points out, the advanced weapons themselves. It speaks a great deal to the advances in such technology in the 20th century that led us through two world wars and left the world at that time under the shadow of the mushroom cloud. It also speaks — rather loudly — to the Cold War balance of power between the world’s superpowers at that time influencing lesser developed countries, most notably Vietnam. The arguments for and against such a balance made between Kirk and Bones outline that most difficult situation for television audiences at the time, making that harsh reality simple enough to understand without talking down to them. That is a fairly impressive feat of screenwriting, when you think about it. For this one, the credit goes directly to Gene Roddenberry. It wasn’t his story idea, but it was his script.
After the previous episode where McCoy doesn’t know much about Vulcan physiology (though admittedly he did rather well in surgery), we see Spock under the direct care of Dr. M’Benga. He’s not a character that gets little play in the series, but he has recurred in other media and resonated in his own way due to his cross-cultural and professional influence. It’s not called out at all. Rather, the character’s quiet strength and professionalism speak louder than he does, adding to the diversity of a cast that prides itself on such and for being a human specialized in treating Vulcans. In his own way, M’Benga embodies the entire Federation on his own. Probably why he’s generated quite the cult following among fans.